Updated 5:15 p.m.
A Jewish community center in southern California is evaluating an allegation that a top official at a summer camp it was associated with had sexual encounters with an underage female camper for several years more than 35 years ago, the Forward has learned.
The Alpert JCC in Long Beach is investigating the claims involving an official at Camp Komaroff during the 1970’s or ’80s.
JCC executive director Jeffrey Rips has written an email to the community, an early copy of which was obtained by the Forward, disclosing the existence of the allegation and explaining the steps it is taking to investigate the claim and safeguard employees and children.
“Many of you know that I grew up in our Long Beach Jewish community and that I was a camper and a counselor at this camp,” Rips wrote. “For me personally, this news has been devastating. My heart goes out to the victim and to those who were part of our cherished camp community.”
The Forward has learned that a high-ranking former Camp Komaroff official was accused on social media by a former camper of engaging in what she believed at the time to have been a sexual relationship for several summers starting when she was a minor teenager. The age of consent in California is and was 18.
The accused former official, who is now retired, has not been criminally charged. A request for comment left on his voicemail was not returned.
Camp alumni have been left to reckon with the possibility that their idyllic summer home was the site of sexual misconduct, and that others at the time may have been aware and did nothing.
“There has been some discussion from some of the really important people from the camp about knowing at the time that there were relations, and particularly sexual relations, between [camp leadership] and some staff members, but not knowing then in the way that we do now that [the relationships] were inherently problematic,” former camper David Feder told the Forward.
Rips’s letter does not detail the alleged incident, but states that the JCC has contacted local authorities about the allegation and has “made sure that the person who was involved in the misconduct is no longer affiliated in any way and will have no future contact with the Alpert JCC.”
The Alpert JCC shared many institutional links with the original Camp Komaroff, which operated as an independent sleep-away camp on Lake Arrowhead until it closed in 1983. The JCC later opened a camp with the same name as a day camp.
Rips also wrote that even before they learned of this alleged incident, JCC leadership had begun implementing additional training for staff who work with children.
Two attempts to reach Rips by phone were directed to his assistant’s voice mail.
Feder, a freelance Jewish educator now based in Portland, said that the camp community is uniting behind the accuser — many alumni who still live in California have decided to meet up this weekend to process the news and support each other.
Support has also been constant in the virtual communities that alumni have built in the absence of a physical camp that could have hosted reunions over the years.
“The community is absolutely is here for this person,” Feder said, referring to the accuser. “And that’s one of the things that is so lovely for me to witness, is that the protection of the people in the community seems to be a priority over protecting the leader or protecting their memories of that time. No one has said, at last publicly that I’ve seen, ‘This couldn’t have happened.’ No one has said, ‘Well, whatever it was, what I got out of the camp was better than one allegation.’”
Camp Komaroff is far from the only Jewish summer camp about which allegations of sexual misconduct have been levied. A woman this year accused her former counselor at a New York Orthodox Jewish summer camp of molesting her.
Jewish organizations, including summer camps, have in recent years taken many steps to eliminate sexual harassment and misconduct. The Foundation for Jewish Camp launched a program called the Shmira Initiative earlier this year to provide training and resources for camp leaders about identifying, preventing and reporting inappropriate sexual behavior. Another sexual misconduct prevention program, developed by an Israel-based not-for-profit called ASAP, is specifically designed for Orthodox camps.
Though Feder said the recent news has greatly saddened him and colored his view of Camp Komaroff, he is still trying to keep hold of its positive aspects, including its Shabbat traditions and its “nontraditional” programming — like a mock Jewish Federation program that he called “the worst idea ever, it’s the most boring, the most institutionalized, but it worked because the people at the camp really made it work.”
“I have maintained, and I have heard this acknowledged by other people who became widely traveled educators, that it really was an astonishing camp,” he added.
Correction, Oct. 11: A previous version of this story said that the Alpert JCC ran the original Camp Komaroff. In fact, the camp was an independent entity but shared many institutional links with the JCC.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.